Talking cards with Zia Mahmood

Zia Mahmood is one of the greatest bridge personalities of our time. He’s an extremely accomplished player,  author of several books that are a given for any keen bridge player’s bookshelf – and to many, he’s proof that bridge can be stylish and sexy, too.

I was lucky enough to interview Zia for a short piece several years ago. Here were his thoughts on the game (and notorious bet against GIB).

What do you think we can improve on BBO and above all on the game?

“I think we should invent a faster, more dynamic version of the game for clubs (e.g. with scoring changes).” says Zia. “A bit like they did in cricket with the 20/20, where action and excitement have been magnified.”

If you aren’t familiar with cricket, the form of the game known as 20/20 (sometimes spelled as Twenty20 – or T20) is a shorter version of the game which restricts it to 20 innings. The first game of its sort was played in 2007 in South Africa, with India beating Pakistan during the final games – and history made for cricket. Interestingly, it’s the same year in which Zia was made part of the ACBL Hall of Fame.

“Also,” he notes. “We need to have more game apps on bridge to get kids into the game – Funbridge is doing a good job here.” Zia also believes that it could help the game to rid bridge of what he calls “too many systems” in everything but expert events, and to see more individual bridge events. He advocates playing more bridge, also as part of initiatives like Bridge2Success.

What’s your opinion on bridge’s representation?

Speaking of representation within bridge, Zia has managed to stay close to his original roots set in Pakistan even while representing countries other than his place of birth. “It saddens me that Pakistan bridge is not at the heights that it once was; it’s difficult in a country where the bridge association is pitifully small in numbers and the facilities are limited.” He says the biggest challenges facing clubs like these are not enough players and limited exposure.

Notably, Zia wagered in the nineties that a computer program couldn’t beat a human player at bridge. “It was a way to get publicity for me and the game – and it worked.” He says that he still doesn’t believe any computer is good enough to beat him and his chosen bridge partner in a match. “I once played an individual versus 9 computers and won easily.”

Zia says that while AI players are perfect when it comes to analysis, the bidding and card play still has a lot of holes before an unbeatable bridge AI sees the light. “Maybe one day. Not yet.”

Professional bridge players see more hotel rooms than a lot of rock stars.

Have you ever beeing thrown off a game?

“I’ve stayed at terrible hotels on occasion and usually left after one night,” he admits. “But it wouldn’t affect my game – although a toothache in Russia did.”

James Bond is a character that a lot of people might want to be, but for one story called Your Deal, Mr Bond (written by Robert and Phillip King), Bond wanted to be someone else – and that person was Zia Mahmood.

What’s your favourite bit?

“I like the last scene when Bond goes up to the leading lady’s room only to be told she’s busy with me! I have no idea how they came up with the idea.” 

Then, the conversation moves to the eccentricities he’s encountered around the table. “I once played a set money game against two people who were signalling each other (with fingers!) – and they were so bad that I allowed them this luxury as we kept winning!”

“I heard Ganozzo used to moon the moon at New Year’s Eve for luck. Never asked him to confirm.”

What’s your three books recommandations?

The first is Adventures in Card Play by Geza Ottlik, the second the Blue Team Book by Forquet.

Then, he adds with what we’d imagine is that familiar twinkle in his eye, “Bridge My Way by some unknown – and it’s being reprinted this summer with four additional chapters – a must!”